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Why a Grandfather Went Back to College: ‘I Was Not Whole’

In the fall of 1959, Ciro Scala, just out of high school, was commuting to a clerical job in Times Square from Staten Island and also going to City College, uptown on Convent Avenue in the evenings. The trip home — which relied on the IRT to Lower Manhattan, the Staten Island Ferry and then a bus to New Brighton — took about two and a half hours, although sometimes it extended to three, getting him home, in every instance, past midnight. Ground down, he eventually gave up and stopped attending classes, which he did with a sorrowful resignation.

The youngest of five children, Ciro was the son of Southern Italian parents who had resisted assimilation. “They never talked about school,” he told me recently. “We had to work. The whole idea was to get a job. High school, yes, but after that, college was not discussed.” Instead he was to help support his family.

The move to Staten Island, when Ciro was a teenager, meant they had a home with a shower for the first time. Previously, the family had lived in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn on the border between Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant at a time when the area still had many factories. Bathing was a matter of standing at the kitchen sink. Ciro’s three sisters all shared the same bed — two at the head, one at the foot. In the summer when it was hot, everyone slept on the roof.

Success, of a kind he had not foreseen, would come in the decades ahead: a climb up the ranks of the textile business, which began with a stint in a mail room; a Brooklyn Heights townhouse, bought fortuitously in 1979; a daughter sent to private school; summers on the East End of Long Island. But these markers of an urbane, affluent life on the other side of the world from where he had grown up, only a few miles away, were not the endgame. He could not shake the regret he felt over failing to complete his education. Now in his 70s, he resumed the journey that had been interrupted so long ago.

“I just never wanted to die without a diploma,” he said. “I lived a life. I felt I was successful. But without that diploma I was not whole. I didn’t want to leave that legacy for my grandchildren.”

Ordinarily, I would have met with Ciro at his townhouse, where my husband and I had rented an apartment on the top floor 14 years ago. When my son arrived early, in advance of the crib I had bought, we got home from the hospital to find that the Scalas had set up a bassinet for us in his nursery. We were speaking on the phone now because Ciro was understandably nervous about Omicron.

Nonetheless, the pandemic had not struck him as a time for languishing. As so many others retreated from their ambitions, he leaned deep into his own. A few years earlier he had returned to City College; by the end of 2020 he had completed not only his bachelor’s degree in political science but also a masters in history. Eventful as that had been, it was not the whole story. Everywhere at school he saw versions of himself at 18 — students who were at once energized by their aspirations but also held back by their insecurities or need to make money, in conflict with parents who clung to traditional cultural values.

At one point, he met a young Egyptian woman who had a distinct vision for her future. “She’d talk about her family and wanting to bust out,” Ciro told me. The family owned a pharmacy. “She’d say, ‘I’m not just going to be a pharmacist’s wife.’ The family didn’t love it. She was a modern woman who also happened to be Muslim.”

All of this inspired him in still another direction. Two years ago, he approached Andrew Rich, the dean of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College, about setting up a program to help students who were the first in their families to go to college. Theoretically, this is where City College, founded in 1847 as an experiment in educating “the whole people” excels. Only 14 percent of undergraduate students are white. But the agenda Ciro developed, focused on a series of workshops around subjects like impostor syndrome, is regarded as singular in its intensity.

“A big part of Ciro’s program is at the earliest point possible to help students realize how they can take full advantage of this place,” Mr. Rich said. This was a direct line to fellowships and paid internships. “Ciro brings a distinctive commitment and compassion to making sure these kids make it through college.”

Returning to school after nearly 60 years had presented its own series of bureaucratic challenges. The high school Ciro went to in Brooklyn could not provide his transcript, which turned out to be on microfiche and thus might as well have been preserved on bark. City College had maintained a record of his time there, but still he would be required to take an entrance exam, he was told.

“I said: ‘What kind of test do I have to take? I opened a business; I closed a business. I traveled the world. I haven’t done algebra in a million years.’” Eventually he found someone who simply let him enroll; he began again, with a single course on the presidency. “And then I just kept going,” he said, “because time was of the essence.”

Moving along with a mission among people who were decades younger, he had not imagined acquiring a social life, but his classmates gravitated toward him — students from the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean. “We’d finish up after class and they’d say, ‘Hey, Ciro, what are you doing? Want to go get coffee?’ and I’d think What?” One evening he found himself joining his new friends to hear music at a tavern in Gowanus.

With Mahir Syed, whom he met in a class called The Historian’s Craft, he got involved in an ongoing text chain about the Yankees. Sadaab Rahman befriended Ciro in a class on African-American political thought. “He came in with a legal pad; everyone else was on their laptop,” Mr. Rahman, now a law student, told me. He was impressed by the way that Ciro modeled both how to use his voice in class but also how to hold back and let others have the floor. “He really helped people speak their truth; it was like having another professor in the class, a coach.”

In 2020, after he graduated, Ciro decided that he wanted to teach. Last year, he fulfilled that goal on the cusp of turning 80. Professors sent him out into the market with letters of recommendation outsize in their praise of his leadership and academic rigor and convinced that he would make an “extraordinary teacher.” He sent out many applications, a number to charter schools, where he thought he would be especially valuable, but to no avail because they typically favor young graduates of liberal arts colleges who often have little in common with the students they teach.

A few months ago, though, he got a call back from Mary McDowell, a private school in Brooklyn that specializes in children with learning differences. Soon after, he began going to work there most days as a roving substitute teacher, working with high school students. “The fact that I am surrounded by young people is extremely fulfilling,” Ciro wrote me one afternoon. “I recommend it for all adults. Spend time with young people. Don’t put the ‘mentoring’ hat on. In my opinion, that’s a turnoff for kids. Meet them at their level. Listen!”

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‘Devastated’: Crowds Throng Funeral Service for 15 Bronx Fire Victims

A line of black hearses began pulling up outside the doors of the Islamic Cultural Center in the Bronx just after 10 a.m. on Sunday. They maneuvered past throngs of distraught mourners who had flocked to the mosque to say a final goodbye to friends, children, parents and cousins killed in a fire that took the lives of 17 members of a close-knit Gambian community.

Indoors, women consoled each other in a second-floor prayer space as the men gathered downstairs. Outside, two tents were filled with families watching the funeral service on a livestream.

Aminata Sillah, 42, had arrived early. She laid a blue prayer rug on the ground in the frigid morning air, tugging anxiously at her boots.

Ms. Sillah’s aunt, Fatoumata Drammeh, was among those who died on Jan. 9 as acrid smoke filled the apartment building on East 181st Street, suffocating people as they tried to flee the 19-story complex. Ms. Drammeh’s three children also died and were among the 15 people being honored during Sunday’s communal funeral service.

“I’m devastated,” Ms. Sillah said. “It’s been a restless week.”

An imam urged people to clear a path as the coffins, draped in black velvet cloth and held aloft by more than two dozen men, were carried inside the mosque.

“It’s just painful,” Haji Dukuray, 60, said before falling silent as a tiny, child-size coffin was placed near where he sat in the front row on a green prayer rug.

“All this innocence, these young kids,” Mr. Dukuray said. “They have no business being here.”

Yahya Sankara, 33, who lost his sister and two nephews, sighed loudly as his eyes began to tear up.

“My heart is done,” Mr. Sankara said. “I have nothing to say.”

New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams; the state’s attorney general, Letitia James; and Senator Chuck Schumer were among the elected leaders who attended the packed funeral service.

The fire, ignited by a space heater, was the city’s deadliest blaze in decades.

The blaze began just before 11 a.m. on a similarly chilly Sunday morning a week ago. Eight children were among the dead.

As the service started, the imam, Sankung Jeitteh, said he was struggling to control his emotions as he listed the names of families — Dukuray, Drammeh, Jambang, Konteh, Tunkara, Toure — decimated by the blaze.

“When the Lord asks for something, we have no choice but to agree,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to control myself.”

Family members started to quietly sob.

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New York Governor Offers Hopeful Sign as Daily Cases Fall by 47%

Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, warned on Sunday that the Omicron surge of coronavirus cases had not yet peaked nationally, saying that the next few weeks would be very difficult in many parts of the country as hospitalizations and deaths rise.

In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Dr. Murthy noted the “good news” of the plateaus and drops in known cases in the Northeast, especially in New York City and New Jersey.

But “the challenge is that the entire country is not moving at the same pace,” he said, adding “we shouldn’t expect a national peak in the coming days.”

“The next few weeks will be tough,” he said.

The highly contagious Omicron variant has fueled an explosive surge of known cases, with an average of more than 800,000 new cases a day reported on Saturday, according to a New York Times database.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, also expressed concerns that the next several weeks would overwhelm hospitals and staff. “Right now we’re at about 150,000 people in the hospital with Covid,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “That’s more than we’ve ever had. I expect those numbers to get substantially higher.”

In addition, Omicron has brought into sharp relief the longstanding lack of adequate testing supplies, with consumers now depleting pharmacies of costly rapid tests — a boxed set of two tests ranges from $14 to $24 — and creating long lines at testing sites.

The federal government has promised to distribute one billion rapid at-home coronavirus tests to Americans, limiting each household to request four free tests. And new federal rules require private insurers to cover up to eight at-home tests per member a month.

But with the test orders and reimbursement processes hampered by delays, Americans will likely not have tests in hand for weeks, which may be too late in some places where demand is high as infections spread.

“We’ve ordered too few testing kits, so our testing capacity has continued to lag behind each wave,” Tom Bossert, the homeland security adviser to President Trump, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s too little and too late, but noteworthy for the next wave.”

While many people infected with Omicron have had no or mild symptoms, others — especially those who were not vaccinated and those with chronic conditions — suffered more serious illnesses that were already overwhelming hospitals in some states late last year.

Dr. Murthy disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision last week that rejected President Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers that would have applied to more than 80 million workers.

“Well, the news about the workplace requirement being blocked was very disappointing,” Dr. Murthy said. “It was a setback for public health. Because what these requirements ultimately are helpful for is not just protecting the community at large; but making our workplaces safer for workers as well as for customers.”

Nearly 63 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, but only 38 percent of those have received a booster shot, which some have argued should be the new definition of full vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed the definition of full vaccination, but said recently it considers three doses of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna’s vaccines to be “up-to-date,” as well as Johnson & Johnson’s shots with a second dose, preferably of Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech.

Last week, the C.D.C. finally acknowledged that cloth masks do not offer as much protection as a surgical mask or respirator, which some experts have urged the agency to recommend for the general public.

“Please, please get vaccinated,” Dr. Murthy said on ABC, issuing a reminder that the shots still provide good protection against severe illness. “It’s still not too late.”

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Homes That Sold for $520,000 or Less

Each week, our survey of recent residential sales in New York City and the surrounding region focuses on homes that sold around a certain price point, allowing you to compare single-family homes, condos and co-ops in different locales.

The “list price” is the asking price when the property came on the market with the most recent broker. The time on the market is measured from the most recent listing to the closing date of the sale.


This 700-square-foot postwar co-op has hardwood floors, a southern exposure and an open kitchen with a breakfast bar in a non-doorman elevator building with a live-in superintendent.

20 weeks on the market

$375,000 list price

1% below list price

Costs $643 a month in maintenance

Listing broker Keller Williams

Connecticut | 2 bedrooms, 3 baths

This 45-year-old, 2,026-square-foot, semidetached condo has an open floor plan, a kitchen with granite counters and island seating and two decks in a complex for those aged 55 and over.

12 weeks on the market

$439,900 list price

Less than 1% above list price

Costs $9,543 a year in taxes; $463 a month in common charges

A 577-square-foot prewar condo with hardwood floors, an eat-in kitchen with granite counters, a bedroom with French doors and a windowed walk-in closet in a non-doorman walk-up building.

31 weeks on the market

$435,000 list price

6% below list price

Costs $5,168 a year in taxes; $405 a month in common charges

Listing broker Triplemint

Long Island | 2 bedrooms, 2½ baths

This 36-year-old, 1,305-square-foot, townhouse-style condo has a living room with a stone fireplace, two walk-in closets and two decks in a complex with a pool and tennis courts.

17 weeks on the market

$499,000 list price

4% above list price

Costs $13,209 a year in taxes; $350 a month in common charges

Listing broker Douglas Elliman

Westchester | 1 bedroom, 1 bath

A 32-year-old, 774-square-foot condo, with hardwood floors, a pass-through kitchen that has granite counters, and a washer and dryer in a high-rise doorman building with a gym, indoor pool and pond.

21 weeks on the market

$389,000 list price

6% below list price

Costs $4,911 a year in taxes; $569 a month in common charges

Listing broker Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty

A 350-square-foot prewar co-op, with a bath, hardwood floors, two closets and a kitchen with stainless-steel appliances (but no dishwasher), in an elevator building with a doorman and gym.

14 weeks on the market

$325,000 list price

17% below list price

Costs $840 a month in maintenance

Listing broker Keller Williams

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